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The Senator and the Priest

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About The Author

Andrew M. GreeleyAndrew M. Greeley

Priest, sociologist, author and journalist, Father Andrew M. Greeley built an international assemblage of devout fans over a career spanning five decades. His books include the Bishop Blackie Ryan novels, including The Archbishop in Andalusia, the Nuala Anne McGrail novels,... More

photo: Jane Silvestrii

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The Senator and the Priest
"YOU REALLY shouldn't be here, you know," my brother Tony jabbed a finger at me. "You have no business playing with the big kids. Never did. You shouldn't run again."
His tone was jocular, as it always is when he's reproving me, big brother laughing at silly little brother, now the big brother priest reproving the little brother who was pretending that he was a United States Senator.
We were glancing at our menus in the Capitol Grill, a hangout for Republican Senators and lobbyists. I did not want to bring Tony into the Senate Dining Room where my colleagues could hear us argue. Besides, he would want a drink before lunch.
My brother had put on weight. He wasn't obese yet, but in a few more years he might be. The tall, solid body which had served him well in his three sports career at Fenwick high school was deteriorating and the shock of long blond hair which the young women from Trinity had worshiped was thinning. He needed to see a dentist. Several times he drummed his fingers on the table. My brother was too busy with the work of the Lord to take care of himself.
"Vodka martini on the rocks," he told the pretty young waitress with his best smile. With everyone else besides me he was charming. With me he was edgy, almost driven.
"What about you, Tommy?"
The pretense was that he was the host, though I would pick up the bill.
"Iced tea."
"Mary take the creature away from you?" he asked, hinting as he always did that my wife ran my life.
"She likes to be called by her full name ... . I have work to do this afternoon. I would never come on the floor of the senate with the smell of booze on me."
My wife and my adored older brother never got along. Besides, I had learned that two drinks at lunch took the tension out of my life and made me vulnerable.
"I bet a lot of the big guys have a couple of drinks after lunch."
Always the big guys.
"That's their problem."
I felt my body tighten. I was falling apart. Every day I woke up tense. Every night I collapsed into bed tense. There were only a few moments in my office in the early morning when I could feel that I was not being torn apart, a Roman criminal tugged in four directions by wild horses. I didn't need Tony hassling me after the morning committee hearing and before a difficult afternoon session. The Senate had crushed all the joy and laughter out of my life.
"You haven't done much here, Tommy," he sipped his martini as though it was a forbidden love. "Created a lot of controversy that's all."
Why was I always thinking these days in images of forbidden love?
"We got some good legislation through," I defended myself. I had always defended myself with Tony. "Pensions, immigration, veterans."
He ordered a sixteen-ounce steak, rare. I settled for a bowl of chowder and a house salad with vinegar and oil dressing.
"Mary really has you on a short leash, doesn't she?"
It was pointless to defend my wife. He had advised me not to marry her and he was always right in the advice he gave me.
"Mary Margaret," I said automatically.
"Are you two attending Mass regularly?" he demanded, as he continued to sip his drink.
"What makes you think we're not?"
"You should think of the kids. They need your good example."
"They give us good example," I said, truthfully enough.
Before we had left the Dirksen Senate Office Building--a place which often reminds me of the Queen of Heaven Mausoleum in Hillcrest, just west of Chicago--to walk over to the restaurant I had, at his insistence, shown him my office. He had frowned as we walked by the receptionist and through the bullpen where letter openers, stenographers, writers, advisers, legislative assistants, press representatives, researchers, schedulers, interns, volunteers, and other staff functionaries were working, a scene which always reminded me of the old films about sweatshops in the garment industry. When we had entered the two small cells where Chris Taliferro, my Chief of Staff, and Manny Rodriguez, Deputy Chief of Staff and Senior Press Liaison, were working, he barely acknowledged my introduction of these lovely, exotic, and indispensable women.
In my own much more luxurious office there was a big desk, wood wall paneling with the great seal of the Senate and the State of Illinois, color photos of my family, a comfortable chair and even a couch--with a splendid view of the Capitol itself beyond the big windows. On this early summer day the crystalline dome seemed almost unreal against the clear blue sky, a postcard picture or perhaps a background for a Hollywood set.
"John," I had gestured towards the only bathroom in the office.
He had ignored me. Real men don't need to urinate.
"Why the hell do you need all those people out there?" he nodded impatiently towards the outer office.
I sat in my judicial chair, though I was not the judge at the moment but the defendant.
"The Federal system does not have precinct captains or ward committeemen to whom the people can appeal," I said with a sigh, "so they appeal to their elected representatives for relief. Much of the work out there is responding to such appeals, opening the letters or the e-mail, contacting the offending agency, passing the tough cases on to me, responding to the people."
"Most of the complaints must be silly," he had dismissed my explanation.
"Some are, some aren't. The federal government can be mindlessly oppressive. We are generally successful where theconstituents have a valid complaint ... . Some of my staff are researchers. We have a vote this afternoon on the Pension Protection Bill jointly sponsored by Senator Bartlett McCoy of Kentucky and myself. We have to be very careful about writing proposed legislation. I have three assistants who deal with the press and schedule my day, a very bright intern from Georgetown law who is drafting legislation on property rights."
He waved my explanation off as, hands shoved into his jacket pocket, he strode back and forth across the office.
"This is all a big, silly game, isn't it, Tommy?"
"The people in Connecticut who had their homes condemned for a shopping mall and the airline workers who had their pensions wiped out in a bankruptcy hearing might not think so."
He sank into the couch, exasperated with my game.
"Who pays these people?"
"The Senate allots a budget to every Senator for staff. I pay the interns myself."
"A living wage?" he had demanded.
"Most of my colleagues know how much they depend on their staff. Even the Republicans don't stint on staff salaries."
"Most of them are women, aren't they? And they fawn all over you, don't they? I saw the way they smiled when you walked through the office. You're not turning into a Bill Clinton, are you?"
"I'm too busy to notice," I had said.
"You don't expect me to believe that, do you?
"Let's go eat," I had risen from my desk. "I have to be back for the session this afternoon when we're going to try to pass the Pension Protection Act."
He had continued his cross-examination as we walked down the marble corridors and out into the bright sunlight. My brother had winced every time I greeted someone, senator or staffer or guard, by their first name.
"So what kind of hours do you keep around here?" he asked.
"The Senate is technically in session on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. The various committees have their meetings in the morning and the full sessions begin at two every afternoon, more or less. Nothing much ever happens on Monday, though a few senators use the day for long speechesto which no one listens. Some of the committees meet on Monday and Friday too. The formal sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday usually end by seven, sometimes earlier. Today, Thursday, is the big day when we debate and vote on legislation. Those sessions can go on to midnight, which makes it difficult for my colleagues to catch the early plane on Friday morning."
"You mean you only work three days a week."
"Most of what we do doesn't happen on the Senate floor. Many Senators commute back and forth to their families and their constituencies where they spend a lot of time mending fences and raising money. Some of them spend their nights here in the Beltway with other senators in two-room apartments. We elected to make Washington home. Keep the family together. Maybe once a month I fly to Chicago to give a lecture."
I got no points for keeping the family together.
I wished to hell he'd leave me alone.
"It sounds like a pretty easy job, unless you're one of the big boys. And they say you're cute little Tommy Moran, the Tom Cruise of the United States Senate."
"Only if you believe the lies Leander Schlenk publishes in the Examiner."
"He's an old hand in this city. He knows what really happens here."
F. Leander Schlenk was the "veteran capital correspondent" of the Examiner whose column "Under the Dome" was Holy Scripture to many Chicagoans, just as Mike Royko's words had been a long time ago.
"He's never mentioned that I'm the assistant minority whip and serve on three important committees: Banking, Judiciary, and Armed Services."
I had fallen into the trap I usually fall into with my brother Anthony. I was trying to defend myself.
"Tommy, Tommy!" He sighed loudly and his shoulders dropped in dejection. "How many times do I have to tell you that you don't know anything about those subjects. You don't belong here. Do you really think you are an expert on the armed services? You can't be that dumb."
"I'm the senior Democrat on the subcommittee on the serviceacademies," I snapped back. "We're investigating the abuse of women at those places."
"Those girls must know that if they go there, they're going to be abused. You're wasting your time."
We entered the Capitol Grill and I calmed down. There was never any point in arguing with Tony. I was wrong by definition, guilty till proven innocent, only none of my proof was admissible evidence. Thus it always had been.
"So you're just about out of the Church?" he continued the case for the prosecution as he cut the blood-red steak with considerable relish. Well, a priest, being celibate, was entitled to some pleasure. As a non-celibate so was I.
"What makes you think that?"
I was being my usual passive-aggressive self when I deal with my brother.
"Well, your parish priest threw you out of Mass, didn't he?"
"He refused us Communion, all five of us. So we walked out and went over to the Jesuits."
"They'd give Communion to anyone!"
Clementine that he was, he didn't think much of the Jesuits.
"How Catholic of them."
"I suppose the kids don't go to Church, teenagers are pagans these days."
Get to the point and leave me alone. Why are you here? What's all this leading to? I have enough problems.
"They go to Mass almost every day at school--just like superstitious old fashioned Catholics. Breakfast with Jesus every morning."
I finished my chowder and pushed it aside. I noted Senator Evergreen of Oklahoma, one of the most obnoxious "Christians" in the Senate, eyeing us. He knew who my brother was. He'd come over and talk. I lost my appetite for the salad.
"You'll never be right with the Church till you get out of this job and out of this city. You can't be a good, practicing Catholic and be a Democratic senator, that's all there is to it. And besides, you're out of your depth."
He didn't look at me when he delivered this judgment since he was too busy finishing off his steak.
"Tony," I said with a sigh, "if you get rid of all the CatholicDemocrats--and I think that's what you guys want to do--that will kill the social justice legislation the church has supported for decades. Poverty, immigrants, the environment, the death penalty, unions, foreign aid--will vanish. The haves and the have-mores, as the President puts it, will take over the country."
"That's the trouble with you politicians," he pounded the table, spilling some of the steak blood on the table cloth. "You always give in and compromise. If you were still a good Catholic, you would take a strong stand on every issue, represent your faith on the floor of the United States Senate."
"Compromise is what you have to do in a democratic society, especially if you're in the minority party."
The waitress lifted his martini glass from the table with an expression that asked if he wanted more. He nodded as if he scarcely noticed ... .
The Clementines, like the Jesuits and many other orders, were content that some of their members be wild cards, men with special causes who are assigned to a minor post and left free to pursue their causes. Tony was the "prior" at a Clementine parish in an African-American neighborhood in Chicago. The work there was left to younger Brothers while he pursued his pro-life crusade--and dashed around the world to deal with Clementine crises.
"That's the problem with you, Tommy. You have no convictions, so you can't have the courage of your convictions. There are some issues you can't compromise on. As your brother and as a priest I must tell you that your immortal soul is in danger. If you wish to save your soul you must take a strong stand on abortion, homosexuality, and stem cell research."
He was devouring a dish of chocolate ice cream and adding to the mess on his clerical shirt.
"None of those issues are before the Senate during this session."
He pushed back his chair, as if he had given up.
"I have to warn you, Tommy. If you don't change your ways, if you don't stop disgracing our family, I'll have to admonish you not to seek reelection."
"Admonish" me. The two martinis must have messed up his brain cells.
"We have made no decision yet about reelection."
"Then I have to tell you that if you do run again, I will personally oppose your reelection."
I felt like he had kicked me in the balls. Even if he were dead wrong, he was still my brother. How could he ally himself with Lee Schlenk and the Examiner and "Senator" H. Rodgers Crispjin, men who were my bitter enemies and determined to destroy me?
Mary Margaret would say it was sibling rivalry. I had found the national audience he had always wanted.
I didn't know whether that was true or not. She also pointed out that in other contexts he was a different man. He was highly respected in his own order or he would not have the positions of responsibility to which he had been elected.
"That is, of course, your privilege as a citizen of this Republic and the State of Illinois," I murmured automatically.
"See what I mean, Tommy," he crowed, "you're too weak to be angry! No spine! No guts! You disgust me!
He rose unsteadily from his chair, prepared to walk away in disgust. If I hadn't taken hold of his elbow he might have fallen on his face. Fortunately, we managed to slip out of the Capitol Grill before the advent of the genial, heavily scented Senator Evergreen.
I felt guilty about that. He and E. Edward Evergreen would have delighted in each other, both models of charm. Authentic charm, I told myself.
Copyright © 2006 by Andrew M. Greeley Enterprises, Ltd.

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